Hot off the press – Abortion clinics and the right to protest

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Free StageHot off the press

At the start of October, councillors in Ealing overwhelmingly backed a proposal to stop anti-abortion groups protesting outside a Marie Stopes clinic in the borough. Newspapers have described women trying to access (or indeed provide) legal healthcare services at a local abortion clinic being reduced to tears or missing their appointments because of ‘disruption and distress’ caused by a pro-life ‘vigil’.  Labour councillor Binda Rai, who brought the motion to the council, said that the decision would allow women to access ‘legal healthcare without intimidation’.

The Back Off campaign has urged the government to introduce legislation banning protests and setting up ‘buffer zones’ in front of all abortion clinics. Many pro-choice activists hope that other local authorities will follow Ealing’s example and ‘act to increase protection for women and clinic staff across the country, who report being followed, filmed and harassed’ by pro-lifers holding up graphic pictures of dismembered foetuses and placards urging women seeking terminations not to hurt their child as they’d later ‘regret’ it.

Obviously, many in the pro-life movement are outraged at Ealing’s decision. Clare McCullough, the Good Counsel Network’s founder, told the BBC that the group has held its vigil for 23 years ‘without any criminal charges’ and argues the ban could have ‘implications for all kinds of groups who are protesting all kinds of things’. Indeed a broader constituency fear this is a slippery slope that threatens freedom of speech and the right to assembly. When Ealing’s MP Rupa Huq calls for clinics to be ‘safe spaces’ for women who are deciding to have an abortion and are already going through a lot of distress without being agitated even further, her use of the rhetoric associated with censorious college campuses has alarmed others. Ealing’s proposed use of contentious Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), which give councils draconian power to crack down on perceived anti-social behaviour, worry civil libertarians.

Is the right to access abortion without intimidation more important than the freedom of speech? Do we have to differentiate between freedom of speech and the right to access medical services in privacy? Should we be worried when the state uses its power to stifle unpopular voices? Does the movement for bans and buffer zones infantilise women by emphasising their vulnerability and need for protection?